Progressing toward Religious Liberty
In this project, you had to distill hundreds of years of stories into just six hours. What did you leave on the cutting room floor that you really wish you could have included?
I don't really think of it in those terms. We knew early on we couldn't do everything -- we couldn't include every denomination and tell everyone's story. We told ourselves that we would try to be as broad and diverse as we could in telling the story we needed to tell, but that we were going to look for emblematic stories that reveal the central dynamics of this history. We could have picked a dozen stories in talking about the Second Great Awakening, and we chose the Methodist story. It seemed the best emblematic story of that time period.
We also knew that if we tried to pick a bunch of little stories, it wouldn't work. We still had to tell stories in some depth to make it work.
There's a clear theme of Exodus in the film. How would you describe this for someone who hasn't seen the series?
It's a particularly favorite theme of one of our lead historians, Stephen Prothero, who talks about it in several places in the series. But I think it's ultimately about freedom, about moving out of bondage. It's not so much about physical travel, although that's sometimes involved as well. It's a way of talking about the American progress toward religious liberty, and it can apply to almost everyone. Some groups talk about it more than others: African-Americans, for instance, talk about it overtly. But it's a unifying idea about American progress and the aspiration for liberty, and in the case of our series, religious liberty.
You also were involved in The Mormons series. After having been through this process in both films, how do you compare the two?
It was more challenging in a way for me to take on a story that had so many different stories in it. To make those choices was difficult. It was also difficult, as we got to the end of the process, to try to convert our own times into history. As you get nearer and nearer to your own time, you know less and less of what's going to be important. Once you have the rearview mirror on history, you can actually pick out what turned out to be more important. When we got toward the end, we mostly tried to connect current events to the great themes that had emerged throughout history. The greatest challenge, though, was to try to cover that much historical time in just six hours.
Read more from Patheos' coverage of the PBS Series: God In America here.